So I drove up to the Wild Basin area pay station in late March. My National Parks pass expired at the end of the month and damnit - I wanted to get my money's worth.
Must have been a slow time of the year, they did not even check my pass, nobody there to do it or even to collect fees. It's all about return on labor and that just wasn't there. An empty parking lot greeted me.
If you visit though do be prepared to pay 15 dollars for a 7 day vehicle pass. If you plan on visiting RMNP several times in a year it would make sense to purchase the 30 dollars annual Rocky Mountain National Park Pass.
Or my favorite.....
The Annual National Park Pass. I always have to get one. Fifty dollars for one year and you can get into any area under the banner of the National Park Servce.
This beautiful glacial lake sits just east of the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, elevation 10,758-feet. It is one of the beauty spots along the Trail Ridge Road, and at approximately the half way point between the resort towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake.
Fondest memory: It was a special treat to be here with my son, Christopher, and his two children, Alexandria and Nicholas. It so happens that I had been at this exact same spot and took a picture of Chris and his brother, Gregory, exactly 30 years earlier, when Chris was just one year old. Now aged 31, a Ph.D., and living in Colorado, I was able to tell him that story when I took a this photo of Chris and his own two children.
The amazing thing is that the scene has changed hardly at all during the intervening 30 years. Chances are it has changed little in the past 300 years.
On my most recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, which was in July, we saw several herds of Elk high above timber line in the cool alpine meadows. On an earlier visit, in May when snow still lay heavy on the tundra, the elk were seen at lower elevations, incuding within the city limits of Estes Park. In fact, local residents have gotten so accustomed to seeing elk on their streets and lawns that they pay them only passing attention.
But although the elk sometimes appear to be tame, they are still wild and potentially dangerous animals. Just last year the news carried the story of an Estes Park woman who was killed by an elk in her own back yard when she accidently came between a cow and her calf. Always be careful around elk and enjoy watching them from a distance.
Elks abound throughout the park, but especially within the first fifteen miles of either entrance. Elks have appeared as high up as the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of Trail Ridge Road. Most of them are to be seen along the Colorado River on the west side, or on the east side between the area comprehended by the Sheep Lakes and the end of Bear Lake Road.
Fondest memory: Elks are in the fall rut starting in September. The horns on the bulls reach their greatest proportions. Competition for females is intense, and from the western campgrounds, the bugling of elks rings through the starlit nights in September and October.
Of my eighteen total days of experience in Rocky, I've had the incredible good fortune of having one day -- and one day alone -- of enjoying clouds in the "low" country. There are two places along the park road that signal your elevation at 2 miles above sea level, and sometimes the drops from the roadway seem as far down. Weather conditions differ depending on the altitude, but the effects are often magnificent.
When was the last time you parked at the edge of a cloud?
Favorite thing: I've carefully chosen never to visit the park except in September. In June I understand that snow drifts still sit next to the road especially at the higher elevations. July and August are the hottest and most crowded months. In September, the aspens are in bloom, the moose and elk are in the rut, the campgrounds usually have some vacancies (even on weekends), and the temperatures are still warm by day. Longs Peak remains non-technical through the first two weeks of September usually. In short, the colors are boldest and the animals most active in September.
Elks are generally visible in Moraine Park and the Colorado River, with frequent occurrences within ten miles of either the western or eastern entrances. Bighorn sheep are found only in the higher elevations generally where there are few if any trees. Moose can be spotted only along the Colorado River and in the creek basins that feed it (western side). Mule deer are generally found in the same areas as the elks. Our horned hosts generally grow their antlers in the spring and cast them off about the onset of winter.
Fondest memory: Moose and elk antlers generally are formed by late June and are most robust by the first of August. Bulls of both species tend to be solitary and are normally not sighted in pairs or threes, but the elks often congregate in the midst of their harems during the fall rut.
There are several overlooks and trailheads within the first fifteen miles of entering from the west before the road rises well above the Colorado River. If you love moose and elks, you can always monitor certain overlooks along the river where the animals tend to concentrate, such as the Beaver Ponds (most recommended) or the Beaver Creek Picnic Area.
Fondest memory: Animals appear with some predictability in several locations in the park, including the moose, the elks, and the bighorn sheep. Elks are aplenty in Rocky almost throughout the park at any time during the summer and fall. Bighorn and moose are notoriously more difficult to encounter, so patience and perseverance will be required.
Favorite thing: Once you get above treeline, plant and animal life shrinks physically and physiologically. Marmots and pikas are often your only ambassadors to the naked slopes of the higher range, while plants tend to shrink to the most meager of flora and grasses. Thanks to glacial lakes and almost constant runoff, small pools fill on the higher slopes and on every shelf, forming rivulets that continue to wet the stone below. Where good sunshine is available, colors tend to come alive.
Favorite thing: Below treeline (roughly at 11,000 feet), Rocky is endowed with some of the thickest conifer forests in the United States. When you are within the forest, the view necessarily is overwhelmed with the verdure of spruce and pine, but there are several places higher up in the park from which to appreciate the ENTIRE forest at a glance. Chief among these are the Forest Canyon Overlook on Trail Ridge Road (the park road), where the valley is bearded halfway up the canyon walls, and the overview of the Cache la Poudre River valley from either the Crater trail or the Medicine Bow Curve.
Favorite thing: Though the top of Trail Ridge Road gives you a taste of the high alpine tundra, and the various mountaintops are strewn with the deposits of past glaciation, you can actually see the carvings of ancient glaciers on the slopes and mountainsides in the high country. Generally speaking, the valley floors grow the thickest plantlife in the wake of a passing glacier, but growth and regrowth help to bury the record of the past. The mountain crests usually preserve its signature for ages.
Favorite thing: Except near the crest of Trail Ridge Road, a lot of the immediate roadside is enclosed by hardy pines, which often obstructs the view of the mountain peaks and valleys beyond. However if you will leave the car at the numerous turnouts and look through the screen of trees, in many places you can see the riparian zone, the forest zone and the tundra zone near the top all at once.
Favorite thing: Rocky has some of the best rugged mountain terrain anywhere. Deliberately set yourself to follow a trail into the backcountry. You'll not need to go far before manmade objects are struck from your memory. A journey into the wilderness is usually sufficient to at least ease you of your every day cares.
Favorite thing: When you leave the car and boldly venture into the trail, the topography of the park is especially rewarding on the eastern side, where the prettiest scenes in Rocky are to be found. For those with little hiking experience in the national parks, many of Rocky's trails will not reveal their ultimate attraction until you are nearly at the end of the path.
Favorite thing: The Landscape at Rocky Mountain National Park has more to offer than just snow capped peaks and rocky craigs. One favorite habitat for spotting wildlife is the ponds and meadows that can be found in the high valleys, such as this old overgrown beaver pond and clear cool stream.